Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Voluntary Party Reform - It's Now or Never

A million words, probably too many words, have already been written about the Conservative campaign, the manifesto, the Party Leader and what went wrong. There is nothing new I can add, so I will not try. My analysis will therefore be confined to the one subject I can speak about with authority and knowledge: the voluntary party and the increasing need for reform.

Over two years ago, in the warm glow of June 2015, I wrote

We must ensure that any changes are bedded-in before our next major electoral challenge. Perhaps the basis for the future should be county-wide Associations or federations, stripping away layers of bureaucracy and introspection. Whatever we do, we should not allow a small number of recalcitrant Associations to use self-interest to block essential reforms which in our hearts we all know must come.

The Party is in a unique position of strength. We have won an election that most people didn’t expect us to win. Our opponents are in disarray. We are ahead in the polls and our finances are strong. The temptation is to do nothing – or simply to “tinker”. To do so would be a dreadful missed opportunity. It could be decades before the moons are in such favourable alignment again. Having helped to win the war, I really hope Lord Feldman and his group have the courage win the peace and bequeath a voluntary party fit for the future.”

How prescient those words were, and how real my fears that we would prevaricate and dither. The consequences of this were plain to see on Thursday 8th June when it has been widely acknowledged that our ground campaign was woefully inadequate. We were no match for Labour and Momentum. Our troops, what few we had, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lack of local political experience resulted in candidates signing up to a national print package with barely any local content and which, too often, arrived too late. The news agenda moved faster than the messaging and we were constantly responding to events rather than leading them. And perhaps, most noticeably of all, without the infrastructure provided by Team 2015, we simply had no way of directing resources to where they were needed most, nor the local knowledge to pick up when target seats had become lost causes – so we carried on campaigning in seats where Labour produced five-figure majorities.

Every single one of the above failures could have been avoided if more groupings had been formed in the two years we have been talking about it. Since the West Kent Group was launched I have spoken to hundreds of Associations about the benefits of joint-working; Suffolk, Cheshire, Cambridgeshire, East and West Sussex, Berkshire, Birmingham, and dozens more individual Associations. Every one, without exception, has agreed it is the way forward – but nothing has happened. The good intentions of the progressives are always overcome by the negativity of the backwoodsmen, who will fight to the bitter end over the ownership of the Risograph to stop the change we need happening, whilst all the while our Associations wither and our campaign ability atrophies.

We have fiddled while Rome burned around us and the ruins of our procrastination are evidenced by our Parliamentary majority. Let there be no doubt that if we had had an effective and focussed ground operation in 2017 the outcome in those 19 seats which we lost by fewer than 1000 votes would almost certainly have been different, and Theresa May would have had her majority.

How could nationwide groupings have made a difference?

1.    With qualified and professional leadership, each group of candidates could have produced their own local literature, with local content tailored to the priorities and needs of their local communities. We did this successfully in West Kent, producing, I believe, better quality literature, all of which was delivered on-time, and with within budget.

2.    By pooling resources and providing strong and clear leadership we will increase our ability to provide campaign support to target seats exponentially. For example, every day of the campaign West Kent provided between 10 and 20 helpers to target seats. This increased to 30-50 at weekends and, on Tuesday 6th June, over 120 West Kent activists were campaigning in target seats outside Kent. This is the equivalent of two coacheloads. Imagine if that could be replicated 20 times across the country – we would have a peripatetic army of 2,500 campaigners fighting on the doorsteps where they are needed most. All that is needed is vision, organisation and leadership.

3.    Perhaps most importantly of all, by selling off buildings which are never occupied, cancelling leases on equipment which is never used and using our combined buying-power to negotiate best value in what we purchase, we will have the resources needed to employ professional staff with the skills to fight elections and build our voluntary party, rather than paying dozens of part-time secretaries, too many of whom just print event tickets and type-up minutes of internal meetings.

In light of what happened last week I think we must be much bolder in our approach. MCAs are too little, too late. Putting together 6 failing Associations will not make a successful group. And whilst I have a lot of time and respect for our young generation of Campaign Managers (indeed many have become friends) expecting a 25 year-old to bang heads together and to resist the competing demands of MPs, Council Leaders and “Very Important” activists simply isn’t fair or realistic. A grouping of this nature needs a hardened “grey beard”, unafraid to make unpopular decisions as he or she is sufficiently competent and experienced to do so.

So here are my revised proposals to build the voluntary party we need for the next General Election.

1.    Groupings of 15-20 constituencies, which will provide the pool of manpower and money necessary to sustain the operation. If this means crossing County boundaries, so be it.

2.    The Associations within each group to retain their own autonomy, with their own officers, finances, internal structures and the right to select candidates.

3.    A new Group Headquarters in “fit-for-purpose” modern office accommodation, with sufficient technology to run a modern business, and space for the staff. Current freeholds to be sold (with the money to be retained by the original Associatons) and leases terminated on rented properties.

4.    Present staff re-employed and re-assigned by the group only if they have the skills needed. If not, redundancies arranged under the best possible terms.

5.    Each group to be headed-up by an experienced County Director, with as many campaign assistants working for him/her as circumstances demand (approximately 2 or 3 per county). Each group to also have an administration manager, a part-time book-keeper, part-time graphic designer and secretarial support as needed.

6.    Annual KPI assessments to judge each group’s performance, with a national assessment team to supply additional support and training where needed.

7.    Groups to be financed by each member Association pro-rata to their membership and ability.

For example. Let us imagine a fictitious group in Barchester County, of 17 constituencies. My proposed structure would give Barchester a County Director, 3 Campaign Assistants, an Admin-Manager, a part-time book-keeper, graphic designer and secretarial support, plus rent on a modern office for around £225,000 pa, or an average of £13,000 per Association. In reality, this would probably mean the financially weaker Associations paying £8,000 pa, and the stronger ones paying £18,000. This is much less than most pay now, for a part-time secretary and an office that seldom functions.

For four years now, I have banged on about groupings. Along with others, I contributed to the Feldman Review, and have spent countless evenings and weekends up and down the country evangelising their benefits. My fortnightly columns on Con Home have highlighted best practice. I have met no-one able to make the case for the status quo.

Our inaction, both locally and nationally, contributed greatly to the disappointing results we achieved last Thursday. We got away with it (just) in 2017 – unless we take action now, we won’t get away with it again.

This is the last article I will write on grouping. West Kent have shown it can work, and it is now for others (with the authority to bring about change) to have the courage needed to make it happen.  

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